Tuesday, November 29, 2011

A minor classic from the Quiet Beatle

On this, the 10th anniversary of George's death, I want to highlight my appreciation for a song of his that I find to be woefully undervalued: "Blue Jay Way." The standard line of criticism goes that "Blue Jay Way" is boring, tedious, monotonous, and the like. It's drone-pop that never comes to life, leaving listeners to share in the chief concern that George expresses in the song's lyric: wanting to go to sleep. I'm of a separate mind. I don't hear boring and tedious; I hear eerie and mysterious. In my view, this moody psychedelic gem from Magical Mystery Tour is among the most richly atmospheric and even cinematic songs in The Beatles' catalog.

The sound matches the subject: "Blue Jay Way" is about a confused and foggy night in LA. In August of 1967, George was staying at a rented house on the aforementioned street in the Hollywood Hills. He was tired after the flight in, but wanted to remain awake until The Beatles' former press officer, Derek Taylor, and his wife arrived. Blue Jay Way is apparently difficult to locate as it is, and the fog certainly didn't help. In the interim, George began writing:

"There's a fog upon LA / And my friends have lost their way / We'll be over soon they say / Now they've lost themselves instead."

He then respectfully pleads: "Please don't be long/ Please don't you be very long / Please don't be long / For I may be asleep."

It's all very uncertain and unsettled. Though the back-story belies this, I often get the impression that more is going on than George allows us to know, perhaps even something sinister. The sonics are just too creepy for the fairly mundane scenario presented in the lyric. There's the pounding rhythm, George's woozy, warped vocal, the atmospherics of the Hammond organ and cello, and the spectral backing vocals. Complementing all of this is the pace of the song, which builds and builds, escalating the urgency of George's words. By the end, he even stops saying "please," chanting simply, "Don't be long." Is that "be long" or "belong"? And what does the climax signify, anyway? Narratively speaking, what has the song been moving toward? Still more mysteries.

It is indeed this sense of mystery that draws me to "Blue Jay Way." It's like film-noir: inscrutable but absorbing.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

"George's God: The Faith of the Quiet Beatle"

In the wake of Martin Scorsese's documentary and the accompanying book by Olivia Harrison, Andrew Ferguson of The Weekly Standard has written a wry, penetrating piece about the manifestations and challenges of George's Hindu faith over the years. I won't go into more detail. Just read it; it's first-rate work.

As a reader who has compulsively consumed the ever-expanding body of Beatles literature for 40 years, I have trouble picking out a favorite anecdote or most memorable quote. Is it John’s “If there is such a thing as a genius, I am one”? Or the note Paul sent John one day in the waning days of the group: “You and your Jap tart think you’re hot s—”? Or maybe it’s the time an airline stewardess offered George a glass of wine, not knowing he was deep in meditation. “F— off,” the spiritual Beatle replied.

One of George Harrison’s most appealing traits was self-awareness. He would have seen (and said) how absurd such talk was. “I was never a real guitarist,” he once told his friend Klaus Voormann. And he wasn’t; he couldn’t launch the fireworks like Eric Clapton or Jeff Beck, and the disciplined technique of AndrĂ©s Segovia or Julian Bream never interested him. About his songwriting, he told an interviewer: “There’s no comparison between me and someone who sits and writes music. What I do is really simple.” Right again. He compared himself to a pastry chef, able to combine musical ingredients nicked from others to make a pleasing presentation of songcraft. He made many marvelous records, but as a source of fresh musical ideas, he said, “I’m not really that good.”

When the cancer finally carried him off, his family’s formal statement insisted that he had never feared his own death, and even welcomed it, so sure was his faith in an afterlife and in God. The claim is repeated emphatically in the documentary. But this has the feel of a white lie—another bit of Beatle mythmaking. His last months were, in truth, a frantic scramble around Europe and North America in search of experimental cures that might keep his spirit housed in his body a few months longer. None of them worked.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Quote of the day

From James Parker's review of Lennon, the new biography of John written by Tim Riley:

And yet Lennon in certain aspects was really quite hateable. Cruel at times, chaotic, dissociated: on his bad days little more, so it seems, than a gigantic human flaw through which the shifting light of genius displayed itself.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Nilsson covers The Beatles

I've been on a Harry Nilsson kick of late. Several weeks back, I watched the newish documentary, Who is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him)?, and wrote about it here. Subsequently, I bought his most celebrated record, Nilsson Schmilsson, and a greatest hits compilation. Both have been very rewarding, set apart by Nilsson's pop smarts, generous personality, and spellbinding voice.

Previously on the blog, I'd done posts about Nilsson's covers of "She's Leaving Home" and "You Can't Do That", and laid bare my affection for "Mucho Mungo/Mt. Elga," a shimmering choral treat from the Lennon-produced album, Pussy Cats.

Below is another instance of Nilsson crossing paths with The Beatles. It's a cover of Paul's pristine and reverent ballad, "Mother Nature's Son." Nilsson replaced horns with strings, but didn't deviate much beyond that. He didn't need to because, as always, his rich voice is the main attraction. All of Paul's vocal garnishes from the original - the "dooos," the humming - seem tailor made for Nilsson.

(If the video is removed, go here.)

Saturday, November 19, 2011

"The Private Life of George Harrison"

After doing two George-heavy posts in the past couple days, I decided to reread Rolling Stone's September 15th cover story (unavailable online, sadly) about the "Quiet Beatle." Penned by Brian Hiatt, it explores George's life outside the glow of Beatles stardom. I don't think it contains much that's new or surprising, but Hiatt does a fine job of underscoring how little The Beatles eventually factored into George's vision of a fulfilling life. From the mid-'60s onward, he pursued an existence of inner spiritual richness... that is, except for when he partied, slept around, and engaged in other acts that satisfied the flesh. Much like John, George abounded with the most human contradictions.

Rolling Stone, I hope that posting these excerpts is permissible.

- But his bandmates never quite shook their idea of him as a junior partner - an "economy-class Beatle," in Harrison's sardonic formulation - and he soon began pushing for an upgrade.

- He was an escape artist, forever evading labels and expectations. Harrison challenged Lennon and McCartney's songwriting primacy; almost single-handedly introduced the West to the rest of the world's music through his friendship with Ravi Shankar; became the first person to make rock & roll a vehicle for both unabashed spiritual expression and, with the Concert for Bangladesh, large-scale philanthropy; had the most Hollywood success of any Beatle, producing movies including Monty Python's Life of Brian; and belied a rep as a solitary recluse by putting together the Traveling Wilburys, a band that was as much social club as supergroup.

- As a small boy, Dhani (George's son) says, "I was pretty sure he was just a gardener" - a reasonable conclusion, since Harrison would work 12-hour days out there, missing family dinners as he pursued his vision, planting trees and flowers. "Being a gardener and not hanging out with anyone and just being home, that was pretty rock & roll, you know?" says Dhani, who understood his father's affinity: "When you're in a really beautiful garden, it reminds you constantly of God."

- The Wilburys recorded two albums (Dhani remembers hanging with Jakob Dylan and playing Duck Hunt on his Nintendo while the band worked on the second one downstairs), but never managed a live show.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Michael Lindsay-Hogg on The Beatles, "Let It Be"

While the subject of The Beatles' breakup is fresh in our minds, it makes sense to have a look at two excerpts from Michael Lindsay-Hogg's recently published memoir, Luck and Circumstance. As the director of the Let It Be documentary, Lindsay-Hogg had an insider's view of The Beatles in turmoil. Like only a few others, he was able to breath the air of some of their worst days. In the passages below, he comments on the fractious band dynamic that unfolded before him.

From excerpt #1:
And there was no idea that any of us could agree on, to do with the TV special. Ringo wanted to do it at the Cavern, the little club in Liverpool where Brian Epstein had first seen them. John and Yoko didn't really care where we did it but did seem up for some sort of adventure, or maybe they just wanted to get out of the cold barn at Twickenham. George didn't seem to want to do it at all. Paul was the one who kept pushing for us to make a plan. His character is resolute, and I think in his heart Paul felt if he couldn't get them to agree as a group to do something as a group that they might fall apart, and, because of his nature, that was the last thing he wanted.

From excerpt #2:
His (George) position was a difficult one. He didn't want them to perform in public again; it had all gotten too crazy. I saw one of their final public appearances at a theater in London. The screaming was so loud, the balcony shaking, that they couldn't hear themselves play and had abandoned the show after a song or two. George just wanted to make an album and felt his position within the group wasn't as valued as his talent should demand. He'd been the youngest, fifteen, when Paul was sixteen and John seventeen, and, the story was, he'd carry the guitar cases as the other two strode ahead, discussing their great plans. And also, probably, he wasn't happy with the traditional album shake- out, artistically or financially. If there were twelve tracks, say, nine would probably be Len/Mac, another with Ringo, and two by George. And George knew he was soon to stake his claim to be his own man, a unique musician, passionate, tender, and ironic.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Hunter Davies on George Harrison

"How George Harrison Split The Beatles"

The headline somewhat misrepresents the points made by Davies. Here's the passage that comes closest to saying that George triggered The Beatles' demise:

George was the first, from my observation, to get pissed off by being a Beatle. He had by then developed – ahead of them. Long before the Apple rows or before Yoko came into John’s life, or Linda into Paul’s, elements usually listed in their break-up, George was desperate to move on and leave them all behind. He’d done all that, that phase in his life was over, and found wanting.

It's clear that George grew very disillusioned with life as a Beatle. He may have even done so before John did. But George didn't act on those emotions in the same vocal, confrontational way that John did; he lacked John's angry force of will. After manager Brian Epstein died in 1967 and Paul attempted to fill the resulting leadership void - what I view as the beginning of the long end - , it was primarily John who pushed back against the move. It was John who, more than anyone else, refused to play nice at being a Beatle. George, on the other hand, was more of a passive presence. Just think of when he told Paul that he'd play whatever he wanted him to while rehearsing during the "Get Back" sessions. John would not have displayed that kind of grace, however passive-aggressive it was.

Because The Beatles' breakup was such a tangled web, I sometimes content myself with the broad, evasive explanation for it: To greater and lesser degrees, John, Paul, George, and Ringo were all responsible, and yet each of them was also a helpless player in this grand drama that pitted them against forces beyond their control. No one of them created The Beatles, and no one of them destroyed The Beatles.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The charms of "I'm So Tired"

I welcome any reason to reflect on "I'm So Tired" - my favorite song by The Beatles - even if that reason is the scourge of restless sleep. When the body is weary but the mind still sharp and active, it's the ideal moment to share in John's comic exasperation with being unable to shut down for the night.

What I enjoy most about the song is John's vocal, so rich in tonal shifts, so full of humor, frustration, and wild-eyed conviction, and so indicative of the singer's messy, complicated nature.

John comes out of the gate as languid and defeated as you might expect. "I'm so tired / I haven't slept a wink / I'm so-ooo tired / My mind is on the blink / I wonder should I get up and fix myself a drink / No-no-no-oh." He couldn't sound any more drained of life, underscoring the toll of his inability to sleep but also the cruel, nagging humor of it (Note that, when he wrote the song, he couldn't do drugs because he was in India at a Transcendental Mediation camp). He continues: "I'm so tired / I don't know what to do / I'm so-oo-oh tired / My mind is set on you." The "you" is Yoko, and the mere thought of her instills John with vigor. From there to the end of the chorus ("You know I'd give you everything I got for a little peace of mind"), he sings as a man renewed, though in reality it's the anxiety of being separated from Yoko that sets him ablaze. He could suffer this bout of insomnia if only his future wife was at his side. Without her, he's pushed to the edge of madness ("I'm goin' insane"). At the start of the next verse, he retreats from it, but only briefly. He soon finds himself again overcome by vexation ("I'm feelin' so upset"), which spills into a miniature comic tirade against Sir Walter Raleigh, the "stupid git" who popularized tobacco use in England. Then another chorus and various repetitions follow, sung in the same vein.

A perfect song.

"I'm So Tired" is the sound of John's oversize personality working its charm. It's the sound of John stricken not only with the inability to sleep but, more so, the human condition. It's the sound of John laughing, crying, hating, and loving all at once.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

"Revolution" revamped

In honor of Steve Jobs, indie rock veterans the Flaming Lips crafted a cover of "Revolution" that was recorded using nothing but iPads. The accompanying video, featured at the O Music Awards, is here. You'll need to side-scroll for a while at the bottom of the page and then bypass a much-too cleavaged Yoko Ono to get there. When you do, you may find yourself nonplussed, even annoyed. The song's novelty (which is admittedly quite cool in the abstract) quickly wears thin, and what remains is a sonically grating, robotized misfire. I suppose it's close to what you'd expect of a tribute from the kooky, stunt-happy Lips. If anything is of interest, it's the band's decision to tap John's moment of vacillation from the original version of the song - "And when you talk about destruction / Don't you know that you can count me out/ In." Beyond that (which isn't much), the song offers little else.